Fuchs Audio Technology designs, manufactures, and modifies tube musical instrument and audiophile amplifiers. Andy Fuchs has over twenty years experience as a technician and musician, which provides him with a unique sensitivity to the needs of musicians and audiophiles. George Stearns, of the SSS crew, has put together an in-depth interview with the man behind the soldering iron at Fuchs Audio Technology.
Hear the Fuchs Overdrive Supreme
SSS: As a kid growing up around your father’s music store, what were your favorite amps?
Andy Fuchs: I can clearly remember sitting in the store for hours playing a Danelectro convertible through an Ampeg Gemini 1, with the reverb cranking. It seems I was a “reverb slut” from my youth ! (LOL). I also have vivid memories of my cousin Kenny D’Amelio playing a blackface twin and a Gibson ES-330 outside at our family’s summer-bungalow, really loud! The clarity, the wonderful depth of the reverb, it never left my ears or memory. I also remember getting goose bumps when an Oliver Powerflex amp head rose out of it’s cabinet for the first time. Breathtaking…
SSS: Who are the people (musicians) whose tone you most admire (growing up and today), what are the characteristics of their tone that you dig?
Andy Fuchs: I grew up in a musical home. Dad played accordion and mom played guitar. They met through music, and thought house-to-house, and eventually married and opened their own music store. They played club dates for years together. Mom retired early, and dad played into his 70’s. I can’t remember a time I didn’t have music around me. Dad always had a radio on, while working at his workbench, or painting the living room. I listened to Johnny Smith, Howard Roberts, Les Paul, George Barnes, Tony Mottola, Django, and lots of musicians who passed through Dad’s store. I even enjoyed accordion jazz from guys like Angelo DiPippo and Art Van Damme, who were doing the most outrageous be-bop lines on accordion! It was as if Oscar Peterson or Art Tatum switched instruments. Great musicians who were cursed by playing accordion!
SSS: At what age did you decide to start modifying pedals and amplifiers and why, also what were your first few projects?
Andy Fuchs: As a kid, I guess I started around 12. My parents bought me some Eico and Heathkit test gear at a local “hamfest.” I had this 100-W plumbers soldering iron (An American Beauty), that could solder to a chassis in a heartbeat. I was the kid you saw dragging a record player, speakers, or TVs home from school to play with at nite! I eventually bought the Jack Darr book, and from it’s schematic section, I built pedals, and tube amps from parts I clipped out of TVs and radios. I built the usual stuff: gain boosters, treble boosters, envelope followers and so forth. The amps were copies of Fender or Gibson circuits. Once I got them running, I would try stuff like cascading the channels for overdrive and adding master volumes, stuff like that. I eventually learned electronics from an old retired Engineer who became a TV guy. I worked in his store after school answering the phone, and eventually he taught me tubes using old US Army and Navy Electronic manuals. I took tests and everything! He’d worked for Grumman on Long Island and got laid off. So he taught me Ohms law, RLC circuits, stuff like that. He had been doing the amp repairs for dad’s music store, but eventually I got that gig from him!
SSS: Has Fuchs Audio Technology (the concept of you building new amps) been a dream since the early days, or did you conceive the idea later, i.e. by demand?
Andy Fuchs: Well, my path went from building for myself, into manufacturing (I worked at Earth Sound Research on Long Island, service (on NYC’s music row in the late 70’s and early eighties at “We Buy Guitars”) and then for New York Audio Labs in NY State). I always enjoyed the whole concept of packaging a product. Layouts of front panels, chassis, etc. I ended up leaving the electronics field, and worked in technical sales for about ten years in another field. I made great money, bought a house, started a family, and all while (still) gigging at night. Eventually, I set up a shop in the house, and began building stuff for myself, taking it to gigs, and letting guys try the stuff. It was for kicks, with no serious visions of it being more than just fun. Eventually, guys asked me to make stuff for them and they were willing to pay for it ! WOW, what a concept. It started locally, then my buddy Bob Clark suggested a website. I bought a digital camera, and my son and I put up a little site. I got on a few discussion boards and “tooted my horn”, and things took off. Eventually, we went from rebuilding to building from scratch. The mods provided a great test-bed for tweaking circuits and experimenting without spending lots of cash on cabinets, chassis and transformers. I also taught myself to design circuit boards, and figured out how to make them sound as good as hardwired amps, when designed properly. We’re up to 2-full-timers plus myself and a couple of girls to handle the computer bookkeeping, while my wife handles coordinating the marketing.
SSS: Who is the most eccentric person you’ve ever built or modified equipment for, and what did they want ?
Andy Fuchs: Some of the most eccentric people I try to avoid! I’ve also tried to avoid major redesigns of what we build. Les Paul used to say “if you need a license to run it, you got too many knobs”. It’s a good creed for a designer. I did a lot of building of esoteric audiophile gear for a guy named Harvey Rosenberg. We made lots of tube preamps and power amps with solid state and tube regulated power supplies, boxes filled with filter capacitance (that could kill you a week after the amps were shut off), tube audio stages in CD players and digital tuners. A lot of that is still being done today by other companies. I also spent time working on OTL (output transformer-less) tube amps, and some hybrid tube/FET stuff. The audiophile market has shrunk steadily and I wish I could justify making some products in that realm, but I can’t. My home audio system is still mostly home made by me and sounds awesome. I’ve done customizing a few of my guitar amp models with more than one master volume, or some extra controls inside the chassis, or on the back panel to allow people to switch back and forth with a little more ease and flexibility to change tones “on the fly”, but that’s about it.
SSS: While living in New York you worked as a tech during the day and guitarist by night. What was the most valuable lesson you learned during that time ?
Andy Fuchs: Discovering coffee and becoming an addict had it’s rewards ! (both then and now). I’m a “one pot a day” guy.
SSS: Tell us a little about the Overdrive Supreme, and Jazz Classic. What was your aim when designing and building these amps, and how do they differ tonally?
Andy Fuchs: On the ODS: I’ve never made it a secret that I admired the tone of guys like Carlton, Ford, SRV, Santana, etc. I serviced quite a few Dumbles, and actually built a letter-perfect clone in an old Bassman chassis. As good as it was, I felt there was another level above that refinement in a few key areas. While keeping a “similar DNA” in the basic circuit topology, I started by regulating the high voltage, which is common in audiophile tube products. This provided a decent noise reduction, an increase in detail, and a consistency when you played in places with lousy power, brownouts or noisy AC lines from dimmers and such. Next, I added DC regulated preamp tube filaments. Again for sonic consistency and lower noise. In our amps, the only noise you hear is the practical noise floor of the circuit and tubes themselves. The construction of the amp doesn’t contribute to anything it should not. From the choice of chassis materials to single point grounding, it’s a vehicle for the circuits, not adding coloration if done right. I also added a full-time flexible FX loop and a studio grade reverb. This brought the whole package to another level. It was no longer a studio curiosity or needing outboard gizmo’s or effects to be a performers tool. Finally, I designed a circuit board and packaging scheme that made the amps repeatable, consistent, and deliverable. We back them with outstanding service, and it’s paid off in terms of our success and reputation as a company. The ODS has been in production about 3 years with only the most minor refinements.
The Jazz Classic: I always admired the tones of guys like Johnny Smith and Howard Roberts, guys with lots of warmth and detail. The touch of their hands to the strings just carried through. I designed the Jazz Classic to have ultra low noise, a very flexible tone stack, lots of dynamics, and the ability to transfer the player’s nuances to the listener. It’s a very organic single channel amp with an awesome reverb, and the tone controls are designed to help a player get a great tone, which minimizing the feedback that might come from playing an archtop guitar. Oddly, I have customers using it with pedals and playing rock and fusion with it. To me that says a lot about the strength of the product. It was our first original “ground up” design, until we started the new product development program this year.
SSS: Clearly you’ve designed a number of versions of each of your amps to meet a variety of stage needs, but let us say the world is a perfect place and you get any kind of stage you want. First what amp do you pick and why, second what guitar do you play through it, and finally what preamp and power amp tubes do you put in and why?
Andy Fuchs: A lot depends on the gig and the style of music. Since I mainly play blues, I can survive a gig and feel like I cover enough territory with a 112 100-W ODS combo and a few guitars. My faves are a PRS McCarty hollow body w/Holmes pickups, a Baker BJH with Fralin humbuckers, a newly acquired G&L Strat (a very impressive guitar), and maybe my trusty old ’69 345 Gibbie.
I’ve always felt that the tubes were as important a component to the tone as a speaker or pickups. The standard tube compliment lately has been JJ preamp tubes (clean and dirty stages), 9th generation Ruby 12AX7’s for the FX loop and driver. The power tubes are a tougher call. You can have an occasional noisy preamp tube, but still survive a gig. A power tube blowout can be a gig-killer! We’ve found some power tubes can be reliable and sound so-so, some sound great but can fail prematurely. As a manufacturer, we test our amps with a 40 hour burn-in, but we only learn about long term tube strengths and weaknesses from the field. We’ve liked the New Sensor Svetlana 6L6’s and the JJ’s are also excellent. The new GT 6L6-GE clones are very good as well, but GT is just getting their production up to speed. The Sovtek 5881’s are very reliable, but can sound a little brittle when pushed hard. Again, a lot comes down to the user’s tonal goals. There’s some great NOS tube tones out there, but the supply is getting smaller by the day.
SSS: Do you feel your amps are more suited to a particular type of guitar or pickup?
Andy Fuchs: I used to feel strongly that our earliest amps preferred semi-hollow guitars with humbuckers. I worked over the last year or so with some players and “slinging a lot of solder” to adjust the circuit tuning to match a wider range of guitars. I think the current SLX versions of the amps sound awesome with anything from a Strat to a Les Paul to a PRS. At most, I might use a clean boost like an RC booster or a Carl Martin compressor used as a booster for a single coil guitar, just to give it a little more authority and to hit the front end of the amp a little harder.
SSS: For many moons a verbal war has divided the “tone freaks” on the internet waves, perhaps you can fuel the flames with your opinion on the “solid state vs. tube” rectifier issue, is one superior or is it apples and oranges?
Andy Fuchs: We’re using ultra-fast high speed solid state rectifier diodes in our amps. I think they combine the attributes of musicality and warmth that tube rectifiers have, and the strength and regulation you get from solid state supplies. It’s a real nice balance to my ear and hands. That’s in both the feel and tone of the amp. I think tube rectifiers have their place in small tube amps with sagging supplies where your intent is to overdrive the output stage and you want the supply to bend a little. Our amps don’t depend on that sag to sound good.
SSS: Ceramic vs. Alnico speakers, advantages disadvantages, which do you prefer and use?
Andy Fuchs:With our smaller amps, the vintage style alnico speakers sound great. The Jensen stuff, the Weber stuff, some of the Celestions. Anything 50 watts or more sounds best with a loud and clean speaker like our FAT-S1, an EV-12-L, and EV-SRO, Mesa Black Shadow. The little amps can grind the power stage and you want a speaker that’s friendly to that. The higher powered amps just really meld better to a louder-cleaner speaker.
SSS: Today, point to point wiring is as trendy as reality programming, what do you say to the person that may or may not buy your amp based on the fact that it doesn’t incorporate point to point, but rather a circuit board?
Andy Fuchs: That’s a personal choice. The debate rages on. I think in a double-blind test a lot of people wouldn’t hear it. If the amp is designed right, and executed properly, it’s more a mental issue IMHO. Andy Marshall wrote a great paper on the subject that’s really clarified this issue. It’s like comparing a Corvair to a Porsche because their both rear-engine and rear-drive cars. One’s a solid winner and one was a death trap. His basic point is that a correctly designed quality board can do everything a point to point amp can do with more consistency and reliability. I believe that. I serviced many early circuit board amps that literally went on fire from poor board design and quality. There were some Earth tube power amps where the boards were made from low grade material and the material broke down from the high voltages and the heat, plus the traces were not heavy enough or the high voltage traces attracted enough dirt to make the traces arc out and cause the board to burn! Today its different. For starters, the quality of the board materials is much higher, the boards are solder-masked and with extremely heavy traces that never carry more current than an equivalent sized wire would in a hand wired amp. Although you can put some tubes on the boards (and we may in the future), we choose not-to. Secondly, the design of the board must be audio-friendly. You can’t just use some auto-routing program to put parts in pretty military style rows and expect a tube circuit to be stable and sound good. We choose to keep our tubes off the boards and we also design the boards to emulate the sound of their hand wired prototypes. We use extremely heavy trace widths and single point grounding for lowest noise and reliability.
SSS: Cats or Dogs?
Andy Fuchs: We have an attack Westie here. You don’t want to mess with Nikki.
SSS: Mods have played a big part in the success of Fuchs Audio Technology. Is doing mods going to stay on the Fuchs menu now that your production models are becoming so popular? If so, what chassis would you recommend as the best to have modded?
Andy Fuchs: We’re always at “odds with the mods”. I have a love-hate relationship. We recently raised mod prices and cut back on options to speed the throughput. We also limit the models and brands we will work-on. Fender, Traynor and Music Man are about it. The Bassmans are cheap and plentiful, sound really good, and are a good balance between power and price. The Super-Bassman wasn’t super, but makes an awesome 100-W guitar amp. The Music Man’s are a sleeper. We designed a series of power supply board and circuit cards to make them a breeze to mod. The 65’s sound great and the 130’s are animals! Most of the older Traynors are also cheap and plentiful. I’m told, In some parts of Canada, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a Traynor! The future of the business will be mainly production, but as long as Richie can keep the mod flow moving along, we’ll keep that door open for a while.
SSS: You guys have been really busy filling orders, have you had a moment to think about where you would like to see Fuchs Audio Technology in five years, and are there any new products on the horizon or just bouncing around in your head?
Andy Fuchs: Watch us at NAMM 2005. We have between 5 and 7 models in the works, and possibly an amp design for a major guitar company that’s in the proto-stages right now. Ideally, we’d love to maybe do some design work for other companies (which is in the talking-stages now), as well as maybe build products for other companies too. I wouldn’t fight being bought by the “right company”, if they could bring capital and marketing to the table to grow us while maintaining our own convictions.
SSS: If you could bring back to life any deceased musician and let them live in the present, who would it be?
Andy Fuchs:It sure would be cool to see what a Danny Gatton, Jimi Hendrix or a Lenny Breau would be doing today. Jaco was a flame that burned too fast, as was SRV. Tough call to name just one. I miss George Harrison and John Lennon dearly.
SSS: When you’ve finished an amp or a mod how do you feel and what does that amp stand for, what is your philosophy on guitar amps and what they express or should express?
Andy Fuchs: I’ve heard so many players that make my amps just sing! I’t gives me a nice warm feeling to sit back and enjoy what others can do with my gear. I recently went to a Melissa Etheridge show and saw Phil Sayce just go nut’s with a Strat through an ODS into a 412 cabinet. Dan Toler has been using the ODS with Dickey Betts Great Southern and it sounds awesome. I’m too busy to practice myself, so I’ve mentally positioned my view of myself as a builder of instruments who happens to play, rather than a guitar player who happens to build amps. I’d love to someday be respected as both. I have a “soft goal” of making a 10 or 12 tune CD before I’m 50, so that’s 2.5 years to go. Just gotta buy a copy of “Cool Edit Pro for Dummies” (LOL).
SSS: If you had to sit on a plane for eighteen hours, next to one member of the Brady Bunch (not the actors, the characters), which would you pick?
Andy Fuchs: MARCIA MARCIA MARCIA ! Her smile always just melted me…..
For more information, please visit the website for Fuchs Amps.